The Travellers Club, C R Cockerell and a Tale of Two Foxes

It should come as no surprise to learn that Paddy is a member of the London gentleman’s club The Travellers Club. The following was sent to me by Blog reader and correspondent James who had scanned it from a copy of “More Tales from the Travellers” which seems to be almost impossible to get hold of in print. I have typed it out exactly as it is printed in the book. It is a speech that Paddy gave to members at an event to celebrate sixty years of membership of the Travellers in 2004. I do hope that you enjoy this wonderful ‘tail’.

In the Library of the Travellers Club

Sixty years is a long time to belong to any institution, let alone one as venerable and distinguished as The Travellers. Sometime, looking back, the lapse of time seems far less, and at others (especially if one dabbles in history at all, as I do now and then) it seems to reach very far back, almost out of sight.

My War-time brother-in-arms, Xan Fielding, and I were put up for the Club when we were in our twenties. Arthur E.E. Reade, our sponsor, was rather older, and a member of long standing when the candidature was set in motion on 1942. We were all three at the time SOE captains dressed up as shepherds, deep in ash and lice, huddling cross-legged over the embers and under the stalactites of a cave in German-occupied Crete. Arthur sealed the envelope putting us up. Obviously it would take some time before it could be handed to the next caique or submarine, longer still to reach Pall Mall. To the south of us, on the other side of the Mediterranean, Rommel was hastening on to El Alamein. Our candidature might take a while.

We asked Arthur what the ‘E.E.’ stood for in his name on the back of the envelope, and he said ‘Essex Edgeworth’. Was this anything to do with Maria Edgeworth, the pre-Jane Austen, Anglo-Irish novelist, we asked, the author of Castle Rackrent? We had just about heard about her.

‘Yes,’ Arthur replied. ‘She was a sort of great-great-aunt.’ This we learned, made him a relative of her uncle, the Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont, the Jesuit son of a convert kinsman who had settled in France and, during the Revolution, became chaplain and confessor to Louis XVI. He accompanied the king to the guillotine where he was reputed to have said, just before the blade fell, ‘Fils de Saint-Louis, montez au ciel!’ He then hastened down the steps and dashed away through the Jacobin crowd.

We also learned that the Club later on was very much the background of those dilettanti who ventured farther east then Venice and Florence in Regency times; particularly the ones who pushed on to Constantinople where, under the auspices of our fellow-member Sir Charles Barry, the amazing British Embassy – damaged by a bomb only a few months ago – was soon to be built. It was of course Barry who designed the premises that surround us at this very moment. Many of these travellers would have hobnobbed with the Ambassador there, Sir Stratford Canning – the ‘Great Elchi’ of Kingslake’s Eothen – who first took up has task at the age of twenty-four and held it all through the Napoleonic Wars, steering Turkey away from hostilities with Russia in order to foil Napoleon’s advances in the north-east.

Canning’s world was the Levant of janissaries and mamelukes, a region wonderfully handled, in those times, by Nelson and by Sir William Sidney Smith of Acre, and by Canning himself. The only communication from London during Canning’s long tour of duty was a very un-urgent and very unimportant enquiry from Wellington’s brother Lord Wellesley, about some antiquarian manuscripts he had vaguely heard about in the archives of the Grand Seraglio. What an example to us all …

Another member born in the same year as Byron and, like him, a sort of Apollo – as one sees by the portrait painted later in Rome by Ingres – was the architect Charles Robert Cockerell. He was the great-nephew of Pepys, and after exploring Italy and Sicily, he had set off from Constantinople into Asia Minor, heading for Troad and Smyrna, and then crossed the Ægean to continue his researches in the Morea. How little the Napoleonic Wars seems to hamper archaeological research!

In 1811 Cockerell and three scholarly companions discovered – or rather re-discovered – the lonely and wonderful Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassæ, built here by Ictinus to celebrate the end of the plague in the same decade that he put the Parthenon together. The temple at Bassæ combined Doric and Ionic columns and, for the first time, launched the Corinthian styles into the architecture of the world. (I say ‘rediscovered’ because halfway through the eighteenth century the French traveller Bochon had barely set eyes on Bassæ when he was murdered by bandits, who thought the brass buttons on his coat were gold.) A generation later the English party, more soberly dressed, gazed at the temple in wonder. There it stood almost complete in its vast and lonely Arcadian glen, one of the wildest and most haunted regions of the Peloponnese. They were struck dumb.

Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassæ

We know the rest of the story: the rescue and reassembly of the frieze that had run round the cella of the temple; the long pourparlers with the Vizir of Tripolitza; the bargaining, the transport of the slabs in a British ship to Zakynthos – Zante, that is – in the newly acquired Ionian Islands; their arrival in England and their final erection on the British Museum, where they were second only to Lord Elgin’s Athenian loot.

The Travellers Club was founded three years after Waterloo and very soon up went Cockerell’s casts of the never-ending conflict that rages just above our heads.

Arriving back to be demobbed at the end of our war, I made a bee-line for Pall Mall. (Xan Fielding and I were members now – Arthur Reade’s letter, three years in transit, had worked.) I dashed upstairs, barely touching Talleyrand’s ramp, and into the Library, to gaze up at the battling Amazons and Greeks and Lapiths and centaurs that girdle this marvellous room. It was a great moment.

I was back in Greece soon afterwards, a peripatetic deputy-director of the British Institute improvising lectures to patriot warriors all over the country, largely about Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – and I’m not sure how gripping the whiskered guerrillas found them. Accompanied by Joan, whom I had married, and by Xan Fielding who was still in the Army, we set off in his jeep and drove from Tripoli to Andritsaina into the fierce Arcadian mountains and on to Phigaleia and – at last! – to Bassæ. We trudged the last few miles along goat tracks, reached the austere and silent temple after dark, and dossed down among the pillars. The early sunbeams over Mount Elaios lit up not only the wonderful columns, but also a young fox sitting in the middle of them. He gave us a long pensive look, the trotted off in search of somewhere less crowded.

Back in the Library here, much later, I was led to Davis Watkin’s Life of C. R. Cockerell and settled with it in a corner (where the centaurs seemed to be getting the upper hand) and it fell open on the page where Cockerell and his friends were inspecting the ruins: ‘One day when they were scrambling about amongst the great fallen columns.’ I read. ‘a fox that had made its home deep down amongst the stones, disturbed by the unusual noise, got up and ran away’. I nearly jumped out of my skin. ‘In the light that streamed into its momentarily emptied lair, they discovered a glint of marble, then the first slab of what turned out to be the felled bas-relief – then another and another, and yet another, until the whole wonderful cincture was resurrected and linked together.’

Our fox must have been a descendent of theirs, the great-great-great-great-great-great – in fact, the hundred-and-fortieth great-grand cub of the one that jumped out of its hole on that momentous day a century and a half before. After all, it was only two thousand, three hundred and seventy-odd years since Ictinus and his fifth-century BC team, having finished their task, piled the spirit-levels and hammers and chisels into the panniers of the baggage-train, shut their dividers, coiled their measuring ropes, brushed off the chips and poured a last libation to Apollo and , perhaps, another down their throats – before following our track across the glen; and we were unshakeably convinced that a small fox, ancestor to all the others, must have watched them out of sight.


The above is the text of a talk given by the author at a Library Dinner in 2004 to celebrate his sixtieth year of membership.

The original scanned pages in pdf format, of which there are three, are here: One, Two, Three



1 thought on “The Travellers Club, C R Cockerell and a Tale of Two Foxes

  1. Pingback: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘magical’ tour « Patrick Leigh Fermor

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